On Everything2 and Oberlin College

After leaving We miss our friends: A dysfunctional noder family reunion last Monday, I went home to Cleveland for a while before returning to my house in Oberlin, Ohio. While I was home, my mom asked me an interesting question: “Are these your people?”

My answer was, I think, also interesting. “As much as Obies are,” I said. My bonds to Everything2 and to Oberlin College are very similar, I think, in part because these institutions are very similar. It sounds strange at first to say that one has the same sorts of loyalties to a website and a college, but I think I can explain myself.

First of all, both E2 and Oberlin College are made up of people. There are a lot of people I care about in both places. That’s a pretty obvious similarity, though, and one that I think everyone can appreciate without more explication on my part.

I can be more specific, though: Both E2 and Oberlin are made up of people who express themselves. I can read your writeups or meet you at a nodermeet and learn about a small part of you. I care about you, individually and collectively, to the degree that I know you, to the degree that I’ve been exposed to your self-expression. And, E2 being what it is, I’ve spent many, many hours being exposed to your thoughts. I’m not really sure I can write a good parallel argument for Oberlin; perhaps it’s really no different than any other residential college in that one inevitably meets people and talks to them and begins to care about them. I suspect, though, that both noders and Obies have more interesting things to say than the average person. This may be in part because both tend to attract people with diverse interests who can relate various subjects to each other.

Both E2 and Oberlin are also institutions. They have systems and rules and administrations. In both cases, administrators have done more good than harm over the years, and have fostered environments that are capable of improvement. Both also have administrations that I question sometimes, administrations that sometimes express priorities very different from my own.

I tend to grow as attached to the histories of things as to their present forms, and both Oberlin and E2 have fascinating histories full of interesting transformations. Oberlin started out as an institution of evangelical Christian perfectionists who quickly became abolitionists and prohibitionists. In the early twentieth century, with a great deal of internal struggle, it shifted its focus from morality to education, and though our senses of morality have changed, there is still disagreement as to whether Oberlin should be more or less activist and more or less academically vigorous. (Personally, I think we should be both more activist and more academically vigorous, but maybe I’m just being masochistic with my schedule.)

Everything started out with a handful of people writing definitions and descriptions of things they thought were interesting. In a way that’s still what it is, but it too has gone through fascinating transformations. It became a community. It has also lead its citizens to speculate about what it should become, about whether its focus should be on writing or on community. I think that we are drawn to false dichotomies when we think about the future of E2, as I think Obies are when we think about the future of Oberlin. This is something of which we should all be wary.

(One other note on history: I’ve worked for, spent a lot of time in, and come to care about the Oberlin College Archives. The Archives ensure that it is possible for Obies to develop an institutional memory if we work hard enough at it. I’m equally interested in the history of E2, and disturbed by our lack of concern for accessibility of institutional memory; in particular, I think that old nodes about noding should be recognized as having historical value and preserved.)

A final similarity: I think that both Oberlin and E2 can genuinely improve the world, not merely their members. Someone wrote something somewhere about Oberlin being dedicated to the ideal that a liberal arts education is not merely a personal good but a social good, that by learning we can understand each other, break down conflicts, and make a better world. Oberlin isn’t actually consistently dedicated to this ideal, but it is often enough that I think its existence is a good thing for others besides those of us fortunate enough to be there. I think E2 has this strength among its many as well. In a way, E2 is a liberal arts institution: softlinks encourage us to read about a variety of things, and the Voting/Experience System encourages us to learn how to write.

Maybe these similarities are matched by equally striking differences to which I’m blind. Even if they are, though, they at least partially explain my attraction to these communities (for that’s what both are) and my own opinions on what makes them strong.